It’s been five and a half years since I started writing for NewMusicBox, so I’d excuse you for having forgotten, but my job description was initially to write about contemporary music from the perspective of a graduate student. I’ll only be one for another year, though; my dissertation will be done in the spring, and hopefully by then one of my job applications will have borne fruit. Time will tell. But even though I haven’t written about music in the university every week, I’ve spent plenty of time thinking about the relationship between new music and academia in America. Having been in higher education for the better part of ten years—”in” as both a customer and an employee—I’ve heard plenty of complaints about it from within and without: It’s insular. It’s backwards. It’s snooty. I recognize that critics wouldn’t level these complaints if they didn’t develop them from firsthand experience. In some cases, they may be true. (In other cases, they’re certainly false.)
But something that’s often overlooked in conversations about whether the degree of dependence contemporary music has on the university is healthy is that affiliation with an institution of higher education affords opportunities and benefits that are harder to come by outside its walls. Last Friday, for example, was “Aesthetics / Class / Worlds,” the second annual Conference of the Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature Department at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. I regret to say that I couldn’t go, however, due to rehearsal commitments with the Contemporary Music Workshop and a new improvising group that’s just started. This is to say nothing of the Donald Gleason Conference on Prostate Cancer; the Gender, Sexuality, Power, and Politics Colloquium Inaugural Meeting; and a public conversation with Amiri Baraka that were also happening on campus.
Plenty of new music ensembles exist outside of the academy, obviously; plenty of improvising groups do too. But how likely is it that any single non-academic institution would offer both of these and a number of conferences, workshops, and talks that address issues in which composers and musicians might take interest? Surely there are liabilities having to do with funding, participation, and even aesthetics for new music in its relationship with the university, but let’s not forget that intellectual curiosity—which after all should be a chief requisite for composers—is nowhere better fed than in the academy.